Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Name Game

by Liz Flaherty


Writers get asked a lot of questions, which, when you think about it, is kind of funny because something we all do to get our stories written is ask a lot of questions. We search the Internet, reference books, and old newspapers, and sometimes—and this is the most fun—we find experts who keep us from making fools of ourselves! But I regress (it happens all the time—it’s how I explain away my inability to stay on point.) A favorite of the questions I’m asked is how I name my people and the places in their stories.

If I’m lucky, and usually I am, the protagonists in the story will name themselves. I’m not sure how it happens, but I will go to sleep thinking of Her and Him and wake up knowing about Libby and Tucker. 

That’s kind of where the luck part ends. When it comes to secondary character names, both first and last, I resort to phone books, baby name books, the Internet (again), and my memory. A person in my story-in-progress has the surname of Bessignano. Years ago, I worked with someone with this name and I always liked it. Using it may have been a mistake for the simple reason I can never remember how to spell it. However, when I tried to change her name to something like Jones, she wasn’t having any, so Bessignano she remains.

Then there is the issue with pets and places. I use profound things like Cat and Dog to begin with. When I name places, I delve once again in history and play games with what comes up. Hoosier Hills Cabins and Campground in Every Time We Say Goodbye had its origin in Hoosier Hills Orchard, which used to be down the road from where I live but no longer exists. However, the book I’m writing now called for an orchard name and, sigh, Hoosier Hills had been taken. Which brings me to my favorite way of all of finding names.


Go to your Facebook friends, give them a rudimentary description of who or what needs a name, and ask for help. Just as it is with friends in real life, cyber-friends never fail you. I’ve given prizes, made new friendships and renewed old ones with the naming of pets and places. Just the other day, my nephew Bill named a—no, never mind, you’ll see it in the book.

by Helen DePrima

I love naming characters, choosing names that sound good when spoken aloud or that have special significance to me personally. My characters quickly become living people to me, sometimes breaking loose in ways I never considered in my initial plotting.

Occasionally I use the names of real people or slight variations if the character is a sympathetic figure in the story. In my first book, I modeled the family servant/friend/confidant after the wonderful woman who kept our multi-generational household functioning during my teen years and used her name, Mattie Johnson. I think she would have been delighted.

In other cases, I choose names consistent with my characters’ detailed history even when I never go back that far in writing the story. Shelby Doucette in Into The Storm is Cajun; her mother loved Steel Magnolias and named her baby after the young heroine in the movie. Lucky I didn’t cite that origin – Shelby would have been five or six by the time the movie came out.

My selecting the Cameron family name harks back to the rebellion of 1745 in which the Jacobin faction fought the British overlords for Scotland’s freedom. Many Scots lost their ancestral holdings and migrated to the American colonies, some as political prisoners. Passion for ownership of land was an integral part of their heritage, as demonstrated by the Cameron’s of Cameron’s Pride.

In writing about the Professional Bull Riders community, I’ve bent over backwards to draw authentic portraits of the many fascinating figures, almost larger than life, without encroaching on anyone’s true identify. Certain names recur – Cody, Kody, Luis, Ty – so that I can rearrange the elements for realism. Occasionally I will use a rider’s real name as a tip of the hat to special achievement, like Navajo cowboy Guyetin Tsosie in The Bull Rider. I’m sure there’d be no objection to my mentioning icons in the sport like Ty Murray or Lane Frost. 

45 comments:

  1. Naming characters is one of my favorite things when I'm brainstorming a new story. But really, I love to give names to everything. One of my favorite purses was purchased with a gift card given to me by my Aunt Phyllis, so I call it Phyllis. I even named my elliptical...Elmer. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're making me think of my 1986 Camaro. I called her Louise and what a great gal she was! I love naming things, too, but sometimes a name just won't click. Thank goodness for FB friends. :-)

      Delete
    2. Too funny about naming your elliptical -- my husband named his Roomba Hazel, for those of you who remember the reference. I also name walk-on characters for friends and family.

      Delete
  2. I enjoyed reading about how you both name characters. Sometimes the name comes to me easily (usually this is the case with my canine characters), and other times, I have to do a lot of searching and I've even changed the name of my hero in one book after the MS was complete and in the revision stage.

    Liz, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who occasionally names her cars. I got a new toy a few weeks ago and I'm calling him Hugh. There's nothing feminine about this car! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, Hugh sounds fun! I think Louise was descended from Helen Reddy music-- "I am woman, hear me roar." :-)

      Delete
    2. Hi Kate -- I always name my trucks, but never a masculine name. My current scarlet F-150 is Ruby. And like you, I amend major characters' names while in progress until one sits well on my tongue.

      Delete
    3. I'm grinning at Liz's comment, and I love the name Ruby for your truck, Helen! :D I might have to consult with you ladies next time I'm stuck for naming a character.

      Delete
  3. This is a great piece you guys. I used to sit around as a kid and think up names. My mom thought I was odd because I liked to have lists of names. I don't know what I did with them, because once I moved away I think they got tossed out. Now I take a lot of time to get a feeling as to how I think a name fits a character. And maybe they only do to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do that, too. They have to feel right. I had to change one, like Kate said, after the ms. was complete (although not the hero.) She's still in books I'm writing now, and I still have trouble connecting to the new name.

      Delete
    2. Hi Roz -- Don't know if you grew up reading Lucy Montgomery's Anne books, but I recall the elegant names Anne longed for and used in her stories, like Algernon and Cordelia.

      Delete
  4. My mom called her car Big Bertha--a baby blue convertible. I use a lot of the ways you both mention to name characters, especially baby name books, and I also like the rolling credits on TV shows and movies. Some interesting choices there to combine and use. Thanks for this great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I love Big Bertha!Thanks, Leigh. I've never thought of using credits--there are some different choices there, aren't there?

      Delete
    2. Hi Leigh -- I drove a '53 Chevy in high school; I called it the Bucket because of the holes in the floor. I could see the road passing by as I drove. And we still have and drive our '68 Beetle named Adolf.

      Delete
  5. I don't name things because I have so much trouble deciding on a name. :-) I have used FB to get my followers to help, though. One came up with an Elvis impersonator named Vic Vegas. Perfect. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Vic Vegas! I love it! I have fun coming naming animal characters, often as important as the human ones. And the bulls in my bull-riding series -- my favorite is Bovinator.

      Delete
    2. Hi, Pat! Oh, gosh, Vic Vegas. Now I have both a name and a visual in my head!

      Delete
  6. The name is the thing! I spend more time choosing my character names than probably anything else. They have to fit--and sometimes it's a real challenge. I've learned if I have to struggle to remember the name, it's clearly not right. :) Love your guys' process!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A great vetting process about hard to remember names. Eventually one just feels right.

      Delete
    2. That IS a good process. I've had it happen, too.

      Delete
  7. My problem is I tend to love the same names. I almost always want my hero to be Mike or Jake or Sam. Don't ask me why.
    I used to name my cars until I got the dreaded mini-van.
    I used to be a camaro girl.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, hard not to repeat favorites. I find myself sticking with the same first letter too much. And yes, I have both a Jake and a Mike, short tough names. I named my first hero Ben.

      Delete
    2. I've had a Ben, and Mike, Jake, and Sam have all been secondary characters. Muriel Jensen got me started on Jack, and I finally got to use him in Every Time We Say Goodbye.

      Delete
  8. I read the obituaries for a number of reasons, one of them being to get ideas for names. In reading the names of the person's survivors, it's interesting to note how names have changed over the years. This is especially helpful if I'm naming babies or small children. Not many Marys or Johns these days, but more exotic names such as (glancing at my list) Zahara, Ersellel, Ciara, Theron, and Maddox.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amusing the new trends in names, especially for girls. Twenty or so years from now people will wonder what were their mothers thinking!

      Delete
    2. I love finding an old name that resonates with me. I use Sarah and Mary (maybe too often) because they were family names (of beloved characters! )

      Delete
  9. I find that sometimes a character's name just comes to me in a flash and it's perfect, and other times I go through several names until I find the one that fits. I use all the methods you mentioned - baby name books, phone books etc. I've also used street names in my city for last names. It kind of makes sense because a lot of streets, especially in the oldest parts of town, were named after real people.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great idea to use street names. I've already named future characters Harden and Breckenridge, after counties in Kentucky.

      Delete
    2. Familiar with those, Helen! I've used names from grave markers in old cemeteries.

      Delete
  10. I always feel like I spend too much time obsessing about character names. This post and the comments make me feel so much better about it. In my first book, a prominent secondary character name got changed at the last minute because I had too names ending in "y." She was the heroine's best friend and I was devastated, Lol. I went with Amanda (a name I love) but I still think of her as Sally.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or too many characters with names sounding similar: Shelby, Sally, Sissy . . . I have a wonder First Reader who picks up on things like that.

      Delete
    2. I've done both those things. In Every Time We Say Goodbye, Arlie and Charlie rhymed and I NEVER caught it. Obviously the editor didn't, either, and I'm glad--those names were too deeply entrenched.

      Delete
  11. I've often renamed characters a couple of times before I settle. I had a Laura, and another character named Alexis. I wanted her to be Lexi, but that was too close to Laura so they called her Alex instead. My daughter named her scarlet pickup Clifford, the Big Red Truck.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Clifford the Big Red Truck -- love it! My red F-150 is Ruby, with a nod to Kenny Rogers.

      Delete
    2. I love that, too! I call my Equinox Blue, simply because she is. That's about as lazy as it gets!

      Delete
  12. I love the act of naming characters. My favorite way is to pick out their strongest personality trait and look that trait up in a baby name meaning book. That's usually how I pick the names. Sometimes they get changed for odd reasons, but that's how I begin. I love reading how you come up with your names!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I use Biblical a lot, too. I've never matched the personalities with meanings, but it sure makes sense!

      Delete
  13. I tend toward Biblical names -- they go in and out of favor but never out of style.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I like the idea of reaching out to the Facebook community to get ideas for names in a book. It's fun when we get to participate. I liked it when Kate James was looking for a title for the 3rd book in her K-9 series.
    Speaking of names, can you use real names of people or places in your books? Let's say for instance, could you mention the name Robyn Carr in one of your books and then refer to one of her book titles, or do you have to get permission? I've always wondered that.
    If I ever write a book, I thought it would be fun to name the characters after heartwarming authors. ( :

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've mentioned authors' names before, but never a book title. I'm not sure how that would work. Yes, Laurie, do that! I can be the crusty aunt with a heart of gold. :-)

      Delete
    2. NEVER could I make you a crusty aunt!! ( :

      Delete
    3. I've used a few real names, but only family members who don't mind or public figures who are fair game.

      Delete
  15. I can't even name my cats, I don't know how you name characters. I always seem to want to call them Sam or Sammie or Petey. I'm so unoriginal that I generally keep the name they come with from the rescue... When I was adopting my last female cat, my colleague asked sarcastically if I was going to name the cat Sharon. Might've except her name was already Lucy so why?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol. Sam is a favorite of mine. And we have a neighbor cat who drops in for dinner occasionally--we call him Sam, too. I always leave them with the name they come with, too--it's already theirs, so why take it away?

      Delete
  16. My new Maine Coon came with the name Lady Antebellum, but I changed it to Alexandra, Allie for short.

    ReplyDelete